From the moment I sat down to write the scene that describes a traditional Southwestern Ontario Christmas dinner in my new novel, The Western Light , I knew exactly what I was going to say, since my family has served the same meal during the holidays for more than a hundred years.
It only seemed natural to model the lavish spread in my book after the dinners prepared by my late grandmother, Pauline Cowan, who was born in 1892 and whose spirit still dominates our Christmas gatherings. Christmas for her – as it is for Big Louie, the character in the novel endowed with my grandmother’s extraordinary gusto – was a chance to celebrate the pleasures of food and drink with a vengeance. One of our ancestors was a temperance reformer who walked from Vergennes, Vt. to Augusta, a small Ontario village near Brockville, in 1830 – and we have made up for his austerity ever since.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, dinner was held in my grandmother’s French-style Victorian home in Sarnia, Ont. The table was set with finger bowls that held floating red carnations and a thick chunk of homemade soda bread was wrapped up in the linen napkins – a Scottish practice that may have been inherited from my grandmother’s husband, John Cowan, whose family was immigrant Scots.
Those rituals have been tossed – we’re less formal now – but we still cook most of the same dishes, including turkey hens with giblet gravy and traditional plum pudding served aflame and garnished with holly. And, when global warming doesn’t interfere, we still cool our Christmas wine in the snowbank – a throwback to my grandmother’s icebox days. Ice was precious then and delivered to the door, so cooling the bottles outdoors became habit.
Our family, a group that today can swell from 10 to 25, still sits around the table in pre-Confederation leather chairs that were used in the Upper and Lower Canada legislatures. They belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather, Timothy Pardee, a Liberal cabinet minister who voted against his own party to win the right of women to work at Queen’s Park. He bought the chairs at a fire sale in Ottawa and used them in his dining room before passing them on to his son, Fred, my great-grandfather, a Liberal senator and house whip for prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. Fred passed them on to his daughter, my grandmother, who gave them to her son, my uncle John, current host of the annual family meal at his house on the shores of Lake Huron.
It is there that preparations begin early in December on the rambling property that in 1917 was bought as a wedding present for my grandmother by my great-grandfather, the senator. My uncle and aunt turned the plot’s 142-year-old-cottage into their home in the early 1970s and started holding the family Christmas there.
Every year, my uncle cuts down a white pine to be trimmed for the meal. For a joke one Christmas in the 1980s, he hung the tree upside down from the original beams in the old dining room. Another year, the tree protruded straight out from the wall. On yet another occasion, it was hung from the ceiling fan. When my cousin’s wife was tricked into turning the fan on, the tree spun round and round, spraying silver balls all over the room.
The prank would cause ulcers in some homes, but, for my good-natured family and their jolly, misbehaving dogs, it was just another excuse to laugh.
My grandmother’s Christmas was the triumph of fun over earnestness. She was a young wife in the Roaring Twenties, when she began hosting it. She sang flapper songs while my grandfather played the piano. He and his huge Sarnia family loved practical jokes. A taste for mischief still lingers alongside a love of Edwardian elegance. But we don’t elaborate on tradition in our family. When it comes to entertaining, our style is simple, not self-conscious. Besides, fussy, grandiose courses means less time for gags.
My grandmother showed my mother how to do Christmas and my mother showed me. Our meal always starts with vegetable platters, as though we need to appease our guilt about feasting on two 15-pound hen turkeys – we always choose hens because male turkeys are tougher – whose cavities have been crammed with simmered onions, bread and lots of butter, salt and pepper. (According to my mother, a stuffing any fancier takes away from the taste of the bird.)
There are mashed potatoes with butter and cream, perfectly browned turnips and bottles of sparkling Burgundy. My grandparents always bought Crémant de Bourgogne for Christmas. It’s made from the same grapes as Champagne and a good bottle can still be had for $20 or less.
Along with the bird come the traditional trimmings: cranberry sauce flavoured with brandy and ginger; bread sauce for the turkey made with cloves and mace and served in an ironstone gravy boat; hard sauce for the plum pudding, prepared a few days ahead.
When my grandmother ran Christmas, her housekeeper cooked the dinner – just as her mother’s housekeeper had before her – and those recipes have been lost. So my mother had to come up with her own versions based on the originals. She always single-handedly cooked every dish, right down to homemade plum puddings, trifles and mince tarts. Now we all chip in and Christmas desserts often come from a local bakery – including a store-bought pudding. Sometimes the men step in and barbecue the birds.
Nevertheless, there are still party crackers at everyone’s place setting, as there was when I was a child in the 1950s. My grandmother’s red carnations are known to show up in dinner vases. And by the time we sit down to eat each year, we’re all wearing colourful paper crowns and occasionally party masks handed out as prizes. Like my great-great-great-grandfather’s chairs, my family has lived through the birth of a nation, the vote for women and seismic shifts in male and female roles. But some things don’t change much. For us, Christmas dinner is one of them.
Susan Swan’s new novel, The Western Light (Cormorant Books), is in stores now.